In early morning mist scented by the Pacific Ocean’s breeze, the garden leaves shimmered under tiny droplets in the muted light. A farmer at heart and now an urban gardener, I would descended the creaky, cold back stairs, drawn down by the strip of earth hemmed in by three sagging fences of different heights and hues and the pealing-paint back of our rented house. This bit of land, this sandy soil just one block from Golden Gate Park, was my first plot to plant, after years of kitchen scraps rooting in jars on the sill and houseplant confinement. I charted my yard and watched how the sun moved across the space. I researched plants that flourish in the area—plants tolerant of salty air and partial sun, plants fond of the Outer Sunset’s blanket of fog—and gamed out a multi-year crop rotation for the veggie bins newly.
Of all my garden loves, I most delighted in my purple artichoke, Violetta, a bountiful, beautiful member of the Sunflower Family. Its varietal name called in the lush Mediterranean from where it hailed and reminded me of my Italian roots. I tended this spikey, slivery-purplish-green, fanning friend with daily pep talks, careful hoeing and precise waterings and feedings. The artichoke thrived. In year one, it took hold and it made four tiny, hard budded chokes, which I proudly shared with my husband. In year two, it grew to produce 24 blossom meats, some a fair size and tender, which I fed to my sisters and their families. In year three, as soon as the winter pause ended in a burst of growth, I counted up 88 tight buds, with signs of more nestled in the leaves at key growth points. Normally not one to count my yard birds before they hatched (they never would, there was no rooster), I began to salivate at the thought of a whole season’s worth of artichokes meals. In the unfurled blooms I saw feasts at the ready for friends.
And underneath, the world below took note too of the artichoke bursting above, for as usual, the roots below mirrored the stalks above and energetic networks spread out richly into their new homeland. Along came a gopher (or perhaps a Mole? Or a Vole?), drawn by the scent of these delicate, thread-like treats, and it began to gnaw, gobbling up the tender shoots, the grubs at work along them, and all the invisible little beings embedded there too that transform decay into new life.
Then came the day, barely awake in the morning fog, I pinpointed with a sickening start the disturbing tilt of my beloved Violetta. One side of its huge feathery, fingers hugged the earth while on the opposite side they reached blindly toward the dim sunlight. When I caressed the leaning leaves, yesterday’s sturdy stock came free in my hands, sliced through with chew marks right at its heart, in the very place I planted its seedling three falls ago. Around that spot, severed roots poked all about. I stood there holding half of my cherished plant in my ungloved hands and struggling to absorb this abrupt transformation. Thistle and roots—still fresh, alive but moving on, growth halted, decay begun—just as each of us, for a tender moment, stand between life and death, holding blooms cut short as we feel our tenuous, linking threads strain and snap.
BIO: Liliana Manzone, an Educator and Writer with a passion for learning, nature and stories of growth, enjoys puttering around her foggy, San Francisco’s ocean-edge garden.